Confidently declaring that the Islamic State “is going to lose,” President Obama on Wednesday asked Congress for broad yet intentionally vague war powers as he laid the foundation for a three-year military campaign against the terrorist group that ultimately could involve U.S. ground troops.
By leaving a host of unanswered questions with its authorization for use of military force, called AUMF on Capitol Hill, the White House is placing a significant burden on congressional leaders who now must hammer out the details.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have voiced serious concerns. Democrats fear the authorization may open the door to another long, bloody ground war in the Middle East, and Republicans say Mr. Obama is unnecessarily tying his own hands and taking a bizarre step by giving up some power in his role as commander in chief.
As he announced the plan in a White House speech Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Obama said the U.S. and its allies have made significant progress in halting the advance of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, through Iraq and Syria. Now, he wants the blessing of Congress to finish the job.
“Make no mistake — this is a difficult mission and it will remain difficult for some time. It’s going to take time to dislodge these terrorists, especially from urban areas. But our coalition is on the offensive. ISIL is on the defensive, and ISIL is going to lose,” Mr. Obama said in a brief address. “Our coalition is strong, our cause is just and our mission will succeed. And long after the terrorists we face today are destroyed and forgotten, America will continue to stand free and tall and strong.”
The authorization for use of military force, the first since the 2002 document authorizing the Iraq War, calls for the systematic destruction of the Islamic State and any person or group associated with it.
The authorization would last through 2018, giving the U.S. and its allies three years to dismantle the radical terrorist organization, though the time frame could be extended.
It contains no geographic boundaries, allowing the president to dispatch U.S. planes or special forces to every corner of the globe to hunt down Islamic State fighters.
The authorization prohibits “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” but there is confusion about exactly what that term means. Mr. Obama stressed that he won’t commit the U.S. to another all-out ground war but made clear that he will use special operations forces to target Islamic State leaders when necessary.
“If we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders and our partners didn’t have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our special forces to take action,” he said.
White House officials said ground forces could be used in defensive operations, for example if Islamic State fighters move on Baghdad.
Democrats are worried about the vague language and the prospect of escalation.
“This authorization needs to make it crystal-clear that U.S. combat troops cannot be sent back into the Middle East as part of this conflict, and I worry that the vague limitations on ground troops in today’s draft may turn out to be no limitations at all,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Opening himself to such criticism wasn’t legally necessary, the president said.
He said the White House does not need a new authorization for use of military force to continue operations against the Islamic State because it has the necessary authority from 2002 on Iraq and a 2001 document allowing the U.S. to pursue those responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The proposal he submitted Wednesday would repeal the 2002 authorization but would leave the 2001 authorization on the books. The administration, lawmakers and outside groups have said it is time to either repeal or rewrite the broad 2001 authorization, which Mr. Obama has used as legal justification for the air campaign against the Islamic State that began in August.
It is unclear how quickly the authorization will work its way through Congress and what it will look like when it leaves Capitol Hill.
After months of calling for the White House to send over a plan, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will not take any action on the proposal until after a weeklong congressional vacation next week for President’s Day, said an aide to Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the committee.
“We will quickly begin to hold rigorous hearings where the administration will have an opportunity to provide Congress and the American people greater clarity on the U.S. strategy to address ISIS, particularly in Syria,” Mr. Corker said in a statement.
Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said they planned to hold a hearing Thursday to begin consideration of the strategy to combat the Islamic State, though no administration witnesses were expected.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said he expects hearings to focus on the president’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State as much as the language of the authorization, including taking a look at the contributions to the fight from partners in the region.
He also expected lawmakers to try to clear up ambiguous language about ground troops.
Republicans have their own concerns.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the president’s plan takes too many options off the table to give military leaders the resources they need to defeat the Islamic State.
“Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people,” he said in a statement. “While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.”
Other Republicans worry that the narrowness of the authorization would unnecessarily restrict presidential powers as commander in chief.
“He should explain why he is seeking to tie his own hands by limiting authority that he’s already claimed,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Despite the array of concerns, lawmakers in both parties support the idea of giving the president formal authority to wage war on the Islamic State, which is directly responsible for the deaths of at least four Americans. James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and, most recently, Kayla Mueller, have died in the custody of the group.
Members of Congress are optimistic that Mr. Obama ultimately will be granted the power he seeks.
“There are enough variables here where we should be able to reach a consensus,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat.
Congress in recent times has rarely denied presidents the authority to use military force, though there are high-profile examples where lawmakers said “no.”
Two years ago, it appeared Mr. Obama wouldn’t get permission to intervene in the Syrian civil war because lawmakers were skeptical about the broader U.S. plan and the trustworthiness of Syrian rebel groups.
In 1999, Congress refused to give President Clinton authority to conduct airstrikes in Kosovo. Mr. Clinton went ahead with U.S. military action anyway, sparking a lawsuit by members of Congress.
Although it appears unlikely that Mr. Obama’s authorization will meet a similar fate, analysts say Congress has problems to fix, including the three-year time frame.
“I would expect the enemy to fashion a specific strategy to exploit the deadline. That is, one where they aim to simply hunker down and continue to exist with the anticipation that three years from now political will might be so exhausted as to make reauthorization problematic,” said Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force general and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law.